Ferries in Virginia

a pre-World War II postcard shows a ferry that ran between the Eastern Shore and Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964
a pre-World War II postcard shows a ferry that ran between the Eastern Shore and Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) until the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel opened in 1964
Source: Boston Public Library, S. S. Pocahontas, automobile and passenger transport between Kiptoeke Beach and (Little Creek) Va., Norfolk, Virginia

Ferries enable passengers to cross Virginia's rivers without getting wet - unless something goes wrong, which happened to President George Washington on his tour of the southern states in 1791.

After meeting with landowners in the future District of Columbia and convincing them to sell land at a fair price for public facilities, he stayed several days at Mount Vernon and then headed south to Savannah, Georgia. When he left on Thursday, April 7, he quickly encountered a problem crossing the Occoquan River to reach the southern shore at Woodbridge. Washington recorded the incident on the ferry operated by the Mason family:1

Recommenced my journey with Horses apparently much refreshed and in good spirits.

In attempting to cross the ferry at Colchester with the four Horses hitched to the Chariot by the neglect of the person who stood before them, one of the leaders got overboard when the boat was in swimming water and 50 yards from the shore - with much difficulty he escaped drowning before he could be disengaged — His struggling frightened the others in such a manner that one after another and in quick succession they all got overboard harnessed & fastened as they were and with the utmost difficulty they were saved & the Carriage escaped been dragged after them, as the whole of it happened in swimming water & at a distance from the shore — Providentially — indeed miraculously — by the exertions of people who went off in Boats & jumped into the River as soon as the Batteau was forced into wading water — no damage was sustained by the horses, Carriage or harness.

Proceeded to Dumfries where I dined—after which I visited & drank Tea with my Niece Mrs. Thos. Lee.

in 1781 bridges crossed the South Anna, Pamunkey, and Mataponi rivers where they were narrow, upstream of West Point
in 1781 bridges crossed the South Anna, Pamunkey, and Mataponi rivers where they were narrow, upstream of West Point
Source: Library of Congress, Campagne en Virginie du Major Général M'is de LaFayette: ou se trouvent les camps et marches, ainsy que ceux du Lieutenant Général Lord Cornwallis en 1781

Starting in the colonial period, the General Assembly authorized ferries and set rates. In the 1900's, the state legislature funded bridges that put ferries out of business.

The Gloucester-Yorktown ferry crossed the York River until 1952, when the state built the longest double swing bridge in the world. Drivers crossing the Coleman Bridge paid a toll until 1989, to cover its construction costs. A replacement bridge, constructed with prefabricated parts, was installed in just nine days in 1995. It still swings open to allow passage of warships to the US Naval Weapons Station and the paper mill further upstream at West Point.2

the 1995 version of the Coleman Bridge swung open in 2015 to permit passage of the guided-missile destroyer USS Carney
the 1995 version of the Coleman Bridge swung open in 2015 to permit passage of the guided-missile destroyer USS Carney
Source: US Navy (150912-N-XG464-068)

Alexandria started as a port city, with ferries for crossing the Potomac River until Long Bridge was constructed. Over 250 years later, it was once again the hub of several water-based transportation services providing the ability for people to use the Potomac River as a highway.

In 2008, the tour boat company that offered waterfront cruises for tourists expanded to provide regular water taxi service linking Alexandria to National Harbor in Maryland. By 2014, it had added a "Baseball Boat" to carry passengers to the Washington Nationals baseball games and concerts at the stadium in Anacostia, and a water taxi connecting with Georgetown and the National Mall.3

The next step was the development of water transit capabilities for commuters, in addition to tourists. A 2014 Federal grant to the Northern Virginia Regional Commission funded the initial start of a ferry between Jones Point Park in Alexandria and Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington DC.

The ferry would provide workers who live in Northern Virginia a new way to access the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security, eliminating the need to drive across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. None of Alexandria's water services carry cars; all provide room for just people.4

In 2016, the private company operating water taxis between Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor, plus seasonal trips ti the National Mall and the Washington Nationals ballpark, announced plans to acquire four new 100-passenger boats and start daily water taxi service in 2017. The trigger for the new, scheduled service was opening of new buildings at The Wharf in the District of Columbia. The company identified Reagan National Airport as a potential docking site as well, but the main justification of the expansion was to expand beyond tourists to provide reliable service to the commuter customers.5

ferry passing in front of Jamestown
ferry passing in front of Jamestown

One part of Northern Virginia was left out of the new commuter ferry plans - the area downstream of Alexandria, in Fairfax and Prince William counties. The military was unwilling to open up Fort Belvoir or Quantico to commuter ferry use, and short routes crossing the Potomac River had greater benefit/cost ratios than routes running north-south parallel to I-95 and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).6

In Hampton Roads, Hampton Roads Transit operates the Elizabeth River Ferry for passengers crossing between Portsmouth and Norfolk. Ferries stop at two docks in Portsmouth, North Landing and High Street. There is one stop at Waterside in Norfolk, plus a second stop at Harbor Park when the Norfolk Tides baseball team has a game. The three 150-passenger ferries are scheduled to run a least every 30 minutes, with additional service during peak hours in the summer.7

the Elizabeth River Ferry connects Portsmouth and Norfolk
the Elizabeth River Ferry connects Portsmouth and Norfolk
Source: Hampton Roads Transit, Elizabeth River Ferry

The effort to re-start a passenger ferry in Hampton Roads to cross the James River, connecting the Peninsula with Norfolk, has been integrated more effectively into local transportation planning than the effort in Northern Virginia.

Delays at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel led to a study of the feasibility of high speed catamarans between Norfolk and the Peninsula. A slow ferry operated between Hampton and Norfolk between 1999-2002, but it failed to attract enough passengers.

The General Assembly funded a study in 2012, but the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation determined that the local governments would first have to establish the planned routes of the light rail system.8

A passenger ferry obviously would fail if it required customers to drive their car to a ferry landing, pay to park in a garage, take the ferry, then rent another car on the other side of Hampton Roads to finish the trip. A ferry would be more likely to succeed if passengers were already moving without cars, ideally walking to from their point of origin to the ferry landing and, at the end of the trip, walking to a final destination nearby.

That scenario matched the smart growth assumptions for "The Tide" light rail system, with the planning department's expectations that transit-oriented development will occur near the light rail stations. Ferry landings could be treated as magnets for new development, if there was a transit connection on the land side.

If a light rail line was built to the Norfolk Navy Base, for example, then the decision on where to locate a ferry landing could be aligned with the decision on where to locate the rail station at that end of The Tide. On the Peninsula end, however, there is no equivalent to The Tide. That part of Hampton Roads chose to invest transportation funding in the widening of I-66, rather than in the creation of a transit system.

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

Hampton Roads Transportation Planning

Potomac River Water Taxis and Commuter Ferry

Steamboats in Virginia

a high-speed passenger ferry from the Peninsula to Norfolk could connect with The Tide light rail transit system
a high-speed passenger ferry from the Peninsula to Norfolk could connect with The Tide light rail transit system
Source: Federal Transit Administration, Seattle Ferry


Jamestown-Scotland Ferry Jamestown-Scotland Ferry Jamestown-Scotland Ferry Jamestown-Scotland Ferry
Jamestown-Scotland Ferry south of Jamestown Island (click on images for larger versions)


1. Benson J. Lossing (editor), Diary of George Washington, From 1789 To 1791, Press of the Historical Society, Richmond (Virginia), 1861, pp.162-163, https://archive.org/details/diaryofgeorgewas02wash (last checked February 12, 2015)
2. "The Point Walk," Gloucester County, http://www.gloucesterva.info/Portals/0/pr/documents/parks/thePointWalkBrochurefortheweb.pdf (last checked June 22, 2017)
3. "About Us," Potomac Riverboat Company, http://www.potomacriverboatco.com/about.php (last checked June 12, 2014)
4. "Feds award money for water ferry commuter service from Alexandria to Southeast D.C.," Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/feds-award-money-for-water-ferry-commuter-service-from-alexandria-to-southeast-dc/2014/06/03/0e3a5916-ea8c-11e3-b98c-72cef4a00499_story.html (last checked June 12, 2014)
5. "The Wharf to bring new daily D.C. water taxi," Washington Business Journal, November 16, 2016, http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/news/2016/11/16/the-wharf-to-bring-new-daily-d-c-water-taxi.html (last checked November 21, 2016)
6. "Potomac water taxis could cost millions to operate, consultant says," Washington Post, October 25, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/potomac-water-taxis-could-cost-millions-to-operate-consultant-says/2013/10/25/c430ad3e-3d8e-11e3-b6a9-da62c264f40e_story.html; "Potomac water taxis may be viable, study says," Washington Post, October 9, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/potomac-water-taxis-may-be-viable-study-says/2013/10/09/41c1fdac-2c37-11e3-b139-029811dbb57f_story.html (last checked June 12, 2014)
7. "Elizabeth River Ferry," Hampton Roads Transit, https://gohrt.com/services/ferry/ (last checked October 30, 2017)
8. "Whatever happened to ... Norfolk-Peninsula ferry idea," The Virginian-Pilot, June 23, 2014, http://hamptonroads.com/2014/06/whatever-happened-norfolkpeninsula-ferry-idea; "Plan would bring fast ferries to Hampton Roads," WTKR-TV, July 19, 2012, (last checked June 24, 2014)

Scotland-Jamestown Ferry
Scotland-Jamestown Ferry

Scotland ferry landing (Surry County)
Scotland ferry landing (Surry County)

From Feet to Space: Transportation in Virginia
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